Nepal Table of Contents

Nepal was once a sanctuary for waves of migrants from north and south of its borders. The early migration from the north was largely of nomadic Mongoloid people from Tibet (the Bhote groups), followed by waves of Indo-Aryans from India. Some of the migrants from the south, especially the Brahmans and Rajputs, were fleeing the religious crusades of invading Mughals (or Indian Muslims) and their suppression of Hindus; others (especially those from Bihar and West Bengal), were lured by the possibilities of the Tarai land. As of 1991, a large number of Indians from Bihar and other neighboring areas still crossed the border into Nepal. Most of those recent migrants were found in towns and cities, where they were engaged in semiskilled labor and mercantile activities.

Since at least the late nineteenth century, the migration trend has reversed its course. In the early 1990s, there was a massive and persistent outflow of people from the hills, the areas that once served as a refuge for migrants. In addition, the volume of migration has been increasing over time. There have been two major types of migration. Permanent or lifetime migration occurred primarily within the national boundary, particularly from the highlands to the Tarai Region; it was motivated by the search for land. Circular migration included seasonal migrants, who moved to wage-labor sites, such as urban centers and construction areas, during the agricultural slack season (November to February). These circular or absentee migrants included long-term (but not permanent) migrants, who moved in search of long-term salaried employment, such as army, government, chaukidar (doorman or guard) services, or factory jobs. Once these migrants succeeded in landing a relatively permanent job, they normally visited their families and villages once every two to three years; if they did not secure such a job, they might return in a few months. Unlike permanent migration, circular migration was both internal (within the country) as well as external (outside the country). Although internal circular migrants ultimately might become permanent migrants, the vast majority of external circular migrants, most of whom went to India, returned to Nepal upon their retirement and discharge from service. Increasing numbers of these external migrants settled in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam, and they have been filtering into Bhutan since the late nineteenth century.

Lifetime Regional Migration

Until the mid-1950s, the volume of permanent migration within the country was very small. Since then, however, there has been increased permanent internal migration, mainly because of population pressures, paucity of land resources in the hills, and the implementation of land resettlement programs in the Tarai Region. This form of migration was identified in the 1981 census as lifetime internal migration.

The total volume of lifetime internal migration in 1981 was close to 1,272,300 persons, a figure that represented 8.5 percent of the total population. The vast majority of lifetime internal migrants originated in the Hill and Mountain regions and moved to the Tarai Region in search of land in a movement that can be called frontier migration. These findings confirmed that the north-south (highland-lowland) flows of migration have made a substantial contribution--both directly and indirectly--to the rapid population growth of the Tarai Region.

One of the major variables responsible for this trend was the Hill residents' quest for land. About half of the male Hill migrants to the Tarai mentioned "agriculture" as their reason for migrating. The "not stated and others" category also constituted a high percentage, probably because most family members who moved with their parents or household heads had no specific reason for their migration.

A high score for trade and commerce among the mountain migrants might reflect the fact that they historically were deeply engaged in interregional as well as cross-border trade with Tibet as their principal economic activity. Because their traditional trade and commercial relations with Tibet had been largely cut off because of political changes after 1950, they might have moved to the Tarai, where such opportunities were expanding, particularly in urban areas.

The pattern for female migrants was generally consistent with the pattern for male migrants. The exception was female migrants for whom marriage as a reason for geographical mobility ranked quite high. This pattern generally reflected the commonly observed reality that female mobility in Nepal was largely tied to family mobility (that is, husbands or parents). Although individual (unmarried) female migration seemed to be gradually on the rise, it still was quite limited.

Circular Migration

Circular migrants, both internal and external, were classified as absentee population in the 1981 census. The major difference between the two groups was that the internal absentee population generally consisted of short-term or seasonal migrants. Such migrants left the hills in search of temporary jobs in nearby towns or at construction sites and generally returned to their villages after the winter season to resume farming. On the other hand, the external absentee population was largely composed of long-term migrants. In the cases of both types, most migrants were adult males although some husbands periodically took their wives with them after they were well established in their jobs.

The volume of circular migration, or absentee population, has been rising. In the mid-1950s, such migration totaled almost 217,000 persons, most coming from the hills. More than 90 percent, or more than 198,000 people, were external migrants; the vast majority went to India. In 1981 the absentee population totaled almost 591,000 people. Of these, 188,000 people, or 32 percent, were internal migrants, and approximately 403,000 people, or 68 percent, were external migrants. Even though the percentage of external migrants in the total absentee population had declined from 90 percent in the mid-1950s to 68 percent in 1981, their absolute number had increased by 205,000 people. Whereas the increasing number of absentee population from the hills was an unmistakable indicator of the region's deteriorating economic and environmental conditions, the decreasing percentage of external migration in the total volume was largely the result of the emergence of the Tarai as an alternative, internal destination.

The vast majority of migrants came from the Hill and Mountain regions. Together, they made up 141,200 (85 percent) of the total of internal migrants and about 365,000 (91 percent) of total external migrants. Unlike in the Hill and Mountain regions, the majority of the Tarai's 82,650 absentees were found within the country.

An analysis of reasons for absence from home revealed quite a contrast between lifetime internal migration and circular migration. Service, which included a variety of jobs, surfaced as the most dominant reason for being absent from home in both internal and external cases of circular migration. On the average, 64 percent of external migrants mentioned service as their reason for migration, the highest rate being posted by the Hill migrants; 28 percent gave no reasons, or other reasons.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress